“Dear Space: We’ll be back soon.”

Eons ago, we looked to the skies and saw patterns. A grouping of stars maybe looked like a bull, or a spoon—or a hunter with his legs planted square, his shoulders askew.

No only are the constellations illusions of imagination, they don’t really exist in the form we see them from Earth.

When the light you see coming from Orion’s right shoulder was emitted by the star Bellatrix, Sam Adams was just beginning to stir up trouble with the British. The Declaration of Independence was nine years in the future. That great distance just means that the “hunter” is simply very, very big, yes?

Orion’s left shoulder is over twice as far from Earth as is Bellatrix: Steel crossbows were brand-new to the battlefield when the red-tinted surface of Betelgeuse emitted the light you see in the sky. Rigel, Orion’s left foot, is even further away, as is his right foot—a relatively dim star named Saiph that emits most of its light in ultraviolet. As seen from anywhere but Earth, Orion looks nothing at all like the constellation we see when we look up, stuck here on the surface of Earth.

Project Orion—along with uber-program Constellation—would have provided replacement hardware as the aging Space Shuttle fleet was retired, as well as extending our range further out from Low Earth Orbit. Unfortunately, just as a constellation may well be spread over light-years of space and only exist as a structure from the viewpoint of Earth, these programs may never send anyone into space. While there is hope that some of the designs will see use in commercial programs, America is getting out of the business of launching people into the great frontier beyond our atmosphere.

A constellation is also a nebulous thing here on Earth. Last year, project Constellation was officially cancelled in October. As part of the Obama administration’s short-sighted budget-balancing goals, project Orion, successor to the Shuttle, has been officially scuttled and demoted to lifeboat duty.

With no other manned spacecraft available from NASA, and no manned commercial craft yet able to achieve orbit, the US will soon be left without human access to space. NASA will have to use depending on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. During the space race, you could get called a commie for wearing a pink shirt; depending on the Russians to get into orbit would have been unthinkable.

Endeavour has landed for the last time, as has Discovery. Atlantis will make her final voyage in July of this year, more than twenty-six years after the completed orbiter was delivered to Kennedy Space Center. On her final mission, Atlantis will carry a year’s worth supplies to the ISS.

In 1968, the project that would eventually become the Shuttle as we know it was envisioned as a way to reach what would eventually become the space station. Even now, it can get no higher than low Earth orbit, where the ISS is located. Due to atmospheric drag, the station has to occasionally fire thrusters to keep itself from re-entering.

It would be easy to argue that this limitation has kept us from going further and higher. Easy access to space has brought us better communications and GPS navigation, but complacent in our abilities, we haven’t gone any further. We went to the moon, why not Mars and Europa and Titan? Why are we not strip-mining Ceres?

Yeah, we landed on the moon, but we’re easily past being able to brag about that achievement. NASA has lost that capability, and couldn’t do it anytime soon even with unlimited money. Americans may never regain the dominant position we once held in space.

However, as a species, despite the turmoil of the last decade, we’ve built a space station that can be seen with the naked eye. It needs to work to keep itself up there, yeah, but it’s still there. And will likely stay there for at least another decade.

It’s easy to imagine that industry will fail to pick up the slack left by the Space Shuttle’s departure, and we’ll be left without the ability to hurl ourselves beyond our atmosphere. I think, though, that somehow, we’ll be back; the human species has far too much curiosity, expansionism, and energy to stay grounded for long. We’ll be back. And maybe, in the far future, we’ll see what Orion looks like from the other side.

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